Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Waylaid by a Metaphor: A Deeply Problematic Account of Prison Growth

Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Waylaid by a Metaphor: A Deeply Problematic Account of Prison Growth

Article excerpt

WAYLAID BY A METAPHOR: A DEEPLY PROBLEMATIC ACCOUNT OF PRISON GROWTH A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. By Ernest Drucker. New York and London: The New Press. 2011. Pp. xiv, 189. $26.95.


The incarceration rate in the United States has undergone an unprecedented surge since the 1970s. Between 1925 and 1975, the U.S. incarceration rate hovered around 100 per 100,000.1 Since then, that rate soared to 504 in 2009, dropping only slightly to 500 in 2010.2 In absolute numbers, the U.S. prison population grew from 241,000 in 1975 to 1.55 million in 2010.3 Not just exceptional by historical standards, this boom is unparalleled globally: the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Despite having just 5 percent of the world's population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners.4

It is not surprising that academics, journalists, and policymakers have attempted to explain the causes of this growth. What is surprising, however, is the general weakness of such explanations. The formal empirical papers that tackle the issue, for example, all suffer from severe methodological shortcomings that fundamentally undermine their results.5 Many of the common explanations-that prison growth is due to the war on drugs, to parole and probation violations, to longer sentences-are often asserted with little rigorous empirical support. And as I have pointed out before, and will continue to do so here, this conventional wisdom is frequently wrong.6 A recent entry in this discussion is Ernest Drucker's A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America.7 An epidemiologist by training, Drucker attempts to use epidemiology's tools to shed new light on the complex causal roots of today's mass incarceration problem. While he largely fails in his efforts, he does so in a very useful way: the mistakes he makes are ones that permeate this literature, so that identifying and correcting them serves the broader goal of setting the record straight(er) about the causes and effects of prison growth.

Drucker makes four key points in his book. First, using New York State as a case study, he argues that the war on drugs has been the primary "pump" for prison growth.8 Second, using the "years of life" metric that epidemiologists employ to quantify the losses from an epidemic, he claims that the prison "epidemic" is on the scale of the AIDS epidemic and other major disasters.9 Much of the rest of the book is devoted to examining how the prison "epidemic" propagates itself through new arrests tied to the war on drugs (Chapter Seven), the recidivism-enhancing de jure and de facto restrictions that inmates face upon release (Chapter Eight), and the intergenerational transmission of incarceration risk (Chapter Nine). Drucker concludes with some recommendations on how to rein in our current reliance on imprisonment (Chapter Ten).

In this Review, I focus on four major substantive errors that run not just throughout Drucker's book but throughout the prison-growth literature more generally. As I discuss in Part I, Drucker overemphasizes the war on drugs. While Drucker sees it as the major source of growth, drug incarcerations account for only 21 percent of prison growth between 1980 and 2009. Of that growth, 67 percent comes from locking up more violent offenders (51 percent) and property offenders (16 percent).10 That said, the war on drugs may play an important, albeit indirect, role (via its impact on prior convictions), but one that most commentators, including Drucker, have generally overlooked. And as a result, he makes policy suggestions that will not reduce prison growth and misses those that might.

The second error, discussed in Part II, is linked to the first: by overemphasizing the war on drugs, Drucker underemphasizes the importance of the rise in violent and property crime. Between 1960 and 1991-the heart of the boom in prison populations-violent crime rose by 371 percent and property crime by 198 percent. …

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